Nico Icon

Friday January 12, 1996

     "The dark side is very bright indeed," director John Huston, who should've known, once said. "The dark is gleaming, like a fire opal or a black pearl."
     John Huston would have appreciated "Nico Icon."
     A well-made documentary about the Andy Warhol associate and singer for the celebrated rock group the Velvet Underground, one of the first people to be famous simply for being famous, "Nico Icon" is an intriguing story of self-destruction and the cool pursuit of death.
     Familiar as that sounds, there is something unnerving about Nico's life. Unlike the usual cautionary tales of innocents corrupted by fame, Nico appears to have always been disconnected, unrooted, someone who almost from the beginning made those who knew her feel, as one acquaintance put it, that "life was a burden to her, rather wearisome."
     It is the glamorous Nico we see first, the tall, glacial blond with, as a Warhol compatriot puts it, "the look of a goddess from Valhalla." It was a persona that Nico, whose only regret was not being born a man, apparently hated, because it caused people to objectify her in ways she resented and couldn't control.
     By the time James Young, keyboardist in her last band, met Nico, she was "a middle-aged junkie" with a decidedly sepulchral aspect, someone who gloried in her bad teeth and the track marks from her heroin habit. She was also "the queen of the bad girls," a terrifying presence who seemed capable of any kind of mendacity before she died in Ibiza at age 50 in 1988.
     Why then do we care about Nico? Partly it's because of the music, the distinctive way she handled landmark songs like "I'll Be Your Mirror," "Femme Fatale" and "All Tomorrow's Parties" that fellow Underground member Lou Reed wrote for her when they were lovers, songs that can be heard in snatches on the film's soundtrack.
     It's also because whether she was beautiful or ghoulish, there was always something otherworldly, almost alien, about Nico. With her deep, mournful voice, she seemed to have arrived from another solar system equipped with the ability to tap into a sadness that was completely earthbound.
     She actually came from Cologne, Germany, where she was born Christa Paffgen, a name she hated because it was "so German." She was modeling for Paris Vogue by the time she was 16 and had a cameo in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," but in those pre-Cindy Crawford days that was not enough. She ended up in New York, and drifted into Andy Warhol's circle, where, says filmmaker Jonas Mekas, "her sadness and desperation fit in." She returned to Europe after that, to drugs, music and romantic liaisons, but those qualities never left her.
     "Nico Icon" is helped by the thoroughness with which it's made. On the visual side, director Susanne Ofteringer has rounded up an impressive collection of clips, ranging from glitzy French liquor commercials to scenes from the European art films she made with one of her lovers, French director Philippe Garrel.
     And though neither Garrel nor Lou Reed agreed to be interviewed, Ofteringer tracked down almost everyone else who mattered in Nico's life, including fellow Underground member John Cale, Warhol stalwarts Paul Morrisey and Viva, and Jackson Browne, who was Nico's lover when he was 18 and wrote her "Chelsea Girl" album.
     Ironically, the most human situation Nico ever involved herself in turned out to be the most wrenching. She claimed the father of her son, Ari, was Alain Delon, but when the French actor refused to acknowledge paternity the boy was raised by Delon's mother, even though that charitable act caused Delon to break relations with her. Ari, for his part, now detests the grandmother and idolizes his truant mother, even though she fed him largely with potato chips and introduced him to heroin. The Brady Bunch this was not.
     Director Ofteringer is also from Cologne, and was initially attracted to Nico's story by disbelief that an international celebrity had come out of her hometown. Despite a few flashy touches, like split images and type on the screen, she has given her film a welcome feeling of intimacy, of paradoxical closeness to a subject who was never close to anyone while she lived.

Nico Icon, 1996. Unrated. A CIAK-Filmproduktion GmbH production, released by Roxie Releasing. Director Susanne Ofteringer. Producers Annette Pisacane, Thomas Mertens. Screenplay Susanne Ofteringer. Cinematographers Judith Kaufmann, Katarzyna Remin. Editor Elfe Brandenburger, Guido Krajewski. Sound Jens Tukiendorf, Charles Blackwell. Running time: 1 hour, 12 minutes.

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